past tense vs past participle

Past Tense vs. Past Participle: What’s the Difference?

Talking about time is pretty important in English. Especially when talking about what’s happened in the past.

As an English teacher, there’s a really simple trick I use to teach my students this concept.

I try to get my students to talk about themselves, such as the things they did the day before. I ask them easy questions like:

  • What did you eat for breakfast/dinner yesterday?
  • What did you do in your free time?
  • What’s the nicest thing that happened to you the day before?
  • Did you enjoy your day at work/school?

These answers don’t require much thinking and while listening to their answers, I can correct their mistakes and show them how to construct sentences.

This exercise is also an excellent way to learn the past tense and past participles.

If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re confused about these two terms.

Well, I’m here to help you out and I promise by the time you finish reading, these concepts will be clear in your head.

Here’s a bonus tip: before reading further, I suggest you grab paper and a pencil to try writing down the answers to the questions I asked, in full sentences.

Hold onto this because I’ll constantly refer to it while explaining the terms.
 


 

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The Past Tense: A Brief Overview

Most likely, you already know that there are three tenses in English:

  • Past tense
  • Present tense
  • Future tense

This concept of tenses is reflected in the way we use verbs. Depending on which tense we’re using, the verbs we use become modified or conjugated.

These tenses can further be divided into four distinct forms (simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuos). For the past tense, they are:

  • Simple past
  • Past continuous
  • Past perfect
  • Past perfect continuous

Simple Past Tense

The easiest form, we use this when the action has already happened or has been completed.

Example: “I ate a chicken sandwich.”

Past Continuous

We use this to refer to something in the past that has already happened, but as though it were still happening (usually in the context of another event).

Example: “I was eating a chicken sandwich when he called me.”

The “-ing” verb gives us the impression of an action that is happening, while the “was” means that it took place in the past.

Past Perfect

We usually use this to talk about events that have already been completed before a specified time or another event.

Example: “I had eaten a chicken sandwich that my mother had made for me.”

The use of the verb “had” along with the specific verb form “eaten” (which is the participle form) tells us that it’s in the past perfect.

Past Perfect Continuous

Finally, we use this verb form to refer to an action that was still happening until another event occurred.

Example, “I had been eating chicken sandwiches from the local diner until I learned to cook on my own.”

This is a very brief guide but for now, just focus on the Simple Past and the Past Perfect. The more comfortable you get with these formations, the deeper you can go.

Past Tense vs. Past Participle: What’s the Difference?

What Is the Past Tense?

In English, we use the concept of tenses to talk about time—to refer to an action that happened in the past, is happening in the present or will happen in the future.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “past tense” is defined as “A tense expressing an action that has happened or a state that previously existed.”

In other words, we use the past tense to talk about something that happened in the past.

Let me explain this with the help of the first question from the introduction: “What did you eat for breakfast yesterday?”

The word “yesterday” tells us that the event (eating breakfast) happened already (yesterday). Therefore, your answer should be in the past tense.

For example, your answers could be:

  • I ate a chicken sandwich for breakfast yesterday.
  • I had eaten buttered toast and scrambled eggs by 10 AM yesterday…and I was still hungry!

The verb “to eat” has been conjugated (changed) to “ate” or “had eaten,” which tells us the sentence is in the past tense.

What Is the Past Participle?

“Past participle” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the form of a verb, typically ending in -ed in English, which is used in forming perfect and passive tenses and sometimes as an adjective.”

This means that verbs in the past participle form usually end in the letters “ed.” For example, the word “talked.”

These words can also be used as adjectives. For example, “the book has already been talked about.” Here, the word “talked” is used as an adjective.

The definition also tells us that the past participle is most often used when forming the perfect forms of tenses. (Past perfect, for example.)

In the perfect form, we use the words “have” and “had” followed by the verb conjugated in the past tense.

For example:

  • I had lived in the United States for seven years before coming back home.
  • I have listened to this song five times now.

The Difference Between Past Tense and Past Participle

So, what’s the difference between the past tense and the past participle?

Basically, the past tense is a tense while the past participle is a specific verb form used in the past and present perfect tenses.

The past participle is not a tense. It’s a form of a verb and can’t be used on its own. You need an auxiliary verb, such as “have” or “had.” Because of this, the past participle is commonly used as a compound verb.

Let’s take a look at two words in the past tense and then the past participle.

Past tense:

  • I lived in the United States for seven years.
  • I listened to this song five times.
  • We talked about this book.
  • I ate breakfast at 10 o’clock yesterday.

Past participle:

  • I had lived in the United States for seven years.
  • I have listened to this song five times.
  • The book has been talked about.
  • I had eaten breakfast by 10 o’clock yesterday.

Regular and Irregular Past Participles

Now that you know the difference between past tense and past participle, let’s take a look at some regular and irregular past participles.

For most verbs, the simple past and the participle forms of the verb are the same.

InfinitivePast TensePast Participle
WalkWalkedWalked
SleepSleptSlept
LearnLearntLearnt
SaySaidSaid
DreamDreamedDreamed
PlayPlayedPlayed

However, this is different for other verbs. The past tense forms and the participle forms aren’t the same. These are irregular verbs.

InfinitivePast TensePast Participle
EatAteEaten
DrinkDrankDrunk
SingSangSung
BreakBrokeBroken
WriteWroteWritten
FreezeFrozeFrozen

Verb conjugation is a tricky topic, as it can be difficult to convert verbs from one tense to another. For regular verbs, you’ll start recognizing patterns after practicing them a bit.

But for irregular verbs, the only way out is to memorize their past and past participle forms.

Here are a few more irregular verbs in their past and past participle forms.

InfinitivePast TensePast Participle
AwakeAwokeAwoken
GoWentGone
ChooseChoseChosen
FlyFlewFlown
SeeSawSeen
TakeTookTaken
ForgetForgotForgotten
GrowGrewGrown
FallFellFallen
SinkSankSunk

Other Uses of the Past Participle

We talked briefly about how past participles can also be used as adjectives. They can also be used in the passive voice.

For example:

  • She tried to fix the broken toy. (adjective)
  • There’s a frozen chicken in the refrigerator. (adjective)
  • All the books were written by him. (passive voice)
  • The car was driven by Max. (passive voice)

If you already know the differences between active and passive voice and when to use each, these concepts probably seem a bit easier.

Practice What You Learned with Fun Resources

Now that you know the differences between past tense and the past participle, it’s time to test yourself with these helpful resources.

English Club’s Past Tense Quiz

past tense vs past participle

If you feel that you’ve understood how the past tense works, English Club has a great quiz you can take to see where you stand.

Fill in the blanks with the right verb form and ta-da! You now know whether you understand the past tense perfectly or still need some practice.

FluentU

past tense vs past participle

FluentU is a language learning website and app that teaches English using an “immersive approach.”

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into language learning experiences.

This means that you learn grammar rules by being exposed to authentic content by native speakers. After each lesson, you take a quiz!

Why not learn tenses and participles with exciting, real-world English videos?

Past Tense Verb Forms Quiz from Grammar-Quizzes.com

past tense vs past participle

This quiz from Grammar-Quizzes.com will test your knowledge of the past tense, its verb forms and the present perfect tense.

Like the previous quiz, choose the right options and fill in the blanks with the correct verb forms.

Keep a Diary

If you want to practice your skills and test your understanding further, try keeping a diary.

Every morning or before going to sleep, write about all the things you did the previous day.

Try to form similar questions and answer them or simply write them down in a short paragraph.

You’ll be making heavy use of the past tense and your sentences will be full of past participles. You can also try saying them aloud or sharing them with a study buddy to improve your confidence and speaking skills.

 

Congratulations! You now know the differences between the past tense and the past participle and can form them on your own. I hope this post has answered all your questions!

And remember to have fun and keep up your dedication. Happy learning!


Archita Mittra is a freelance writer, journalist, editor and educator. Feel free to check out her blog or contact her for freelancing/educational inquiries.
 

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